Blackhawks

Nick Schmaltz 'playing to full capability' a key reason why Blackhawks' four-line rotation is rolling

Nick Schmaltz 'playing to full capability' a key reason why Blackhawks' four-line rotation is rolling

When the Blackhawks sent Nick Schmaltz down to the American Hockey League on Dec. 4, the goal was to get him acclimated to playing more of the two-way style of hockey Joel Quenneville preaches, and to balance his passing instincts with his shooting ability.

He was there for a little over a month, and just that brief stint has reaped benefits for the Blackhawks' first-round pick in 2014.

After scoring only one goal and three assists in his first 26 games, Schmaltz has five goals and eight assists in the 18 games since he returned to the NHL on Jan. 14, and is a large reason why the Blackhawks' four-line rotation has been clicking over the past month.

"Whatever he did when he went down to Rockford is incredible," said Scott Darling, who stopped 36 of 37 shots in a 4-1 win over the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins at the United Center on Wednesday night. "Came back with a whole new edge and a whole new intensity, and now you’re seeing the results. He’s playing to the full capability."

Schmaltz added a few more plays to his highlight reel on Wednesday, but he more-so earned brownie points and the trust of his head coach.

After Artem Anisimov went down with a lower-body injury early in the second period, Quenneville was forced to separate the top line that's been on fire, and moved Schmaltz to center on the second line with Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane.

It was a smooth transition despite not having played there in a while, and it showed quickly.

The 21-year-old rookie hustled back in the neutral zone and stripped the puck away from Penguins forward Jake Guentzel, then fed Kane a quick pass who slipped one past Marc-Andre Fleury for the game's first goal.

"I thought I had a chance at catching him, I just wanted to put pressure on him," Schmaltz said. "I try to do that a lot where I just lift the stick, pull it back, then I saw Kaner there and he made a great shot five-hole."

The Blackhawks took a 2-1 lead into the third period, but the dagger came with just under four minutes to play when Schmaltz made a nifty little move before delivering a perfect backhand pass to Kane, who buried his second of three on the night.

"You don't want to break up that top line when they're playing so well, but wow, what a couple great plays Schmaltzy made on my first two goals," Kane said.

The win gave the Blackhawks their 10th in the last 11 games, and they've scored at least four goals in each of those victories. Schmaltz has played a big hand in that, on both ends of the ice.

"I thought he had a great game, moving back to center, something he hasn't done for us in a while," Quenneville said. "He fit in perfectly with those two guys. He really took advantage of the situation, and really helped our team and our team game with his play. I think the last four games he's really elevated his game to a different level. Big factor again tonight. Great to see. I like that."

The praise didn't stop there.

"I think that's the thing that you notice in his game," Quenneville continued, when asked about Schmaltz's improvements from earlier in the year. "Whether it's his defensive responsibility, backside pressure, stronger on the puck area, more pace to his game. His confidence with the puck and his playmaking ability is his strength. I saw a couple nice plays by him tonight, and it really gives us some options. Him fitting in that hole where (Anisimov) was, we didn't know it was going to be like that. But I liked how he took advantage of it."

With two more assists, Schmaltz extended his point streak to a season-high five games, where he's potted two goals and seven assists total. He's also registered at least a point in eight of his last nine games, and has 12 points during that span.

Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said recently that Schmaltz's confidence has grown immensely, and that can be attributed to his stint in Rockford. That's all the time he needed.

"He knows he can play now at this level," Bowman said. "I don't think there's any question. He's not just trying to get by, he's trying to make a difference now."

He did again on Wednesday, and without him, the Blackhawks wouldn't be on this hot stretch. 

"We’ve got everyone going right now," Schmaltz said. "Hopefully we can keep this rolling."

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: Blackhawks offense finally opens things up as Patrick Kane starts streaking

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USA Today

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: Blackhawks offense finally opens things up as Patrick Kane starts streaking

On the latest Blackhawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle and Charlie Roumeliotis break down the changes made to the Hawks defensive zone coverage (1:50) and Patrick Kane’s current points streak (7:30). They also discuss how most of the players that have been scratched recently have had bounce-back efforts (11:20), as well as the improved play of Erik Gustafsson (18:12) and both special teams units (20:16). Plus, the debut of “Checkpoint Charlie," where Charlie gives us a taste of life on the road and his encounter with Chris Rock’s brother (29:00).

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

 

Blackhawks Talk Podcast

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Jeremy Colliton explains schematic change and why Blackhawks made it

Jeremy Colliton explains schematic change and why Blackhawks made it

The Blackhawks made a schematic change after their four-game road trip and they've seen the benefits of it immediately. They're 2-0-1 in their past three games and have scored 12 goals over that stretch.

We broke down on Monday what changes were made systematically and how it has freed up the offense, but head coach Jeremy Colliton elaborated on it Tuesday and explained the reasoning behind the decision.

"All it is is, our weak side forward, we pushed him up higher in defensive zone coverage," Colliton said. "Before, we had four low a lot of times, to try and overload in certain situations. That's good, it gets you out of D-zone, but the problem is when you win the puck back, a lot of times you're very close together and it's harder to make clean plays, it's harder to exit with space to make plays. So we were having trouble entering the zone.

"There's been a lot of talk about how we have been dumping too many pucks in. Well, we're not trying to dump the puck in, but when you're attacking and you don't have numbers, you don't have space in behind, you have to, you're forced too. I think we're doing a much better job of getting from D-zone clean, because we have a forward a little bit higher, there's a little more space, it happens quicker. And then I think we've done a good job with the low three [of] someone jumping by and then we can create a little bit more space off the rush and we don't have to chip it in. We can enter clean, make some plays and I think the guys are doing very well."

Patrick Kane, who has erupted for seven points (four goals, three assists) in the past three games since the change, sees the change opening up more opportunities for the Blackhawks on offense.

"I think a lot of us probably stressed that there wasn't as much flow to it, for whatever reason that was," Kane said. "They made a change and all of a sudden it seems like we have more options coming out of our end, we have more motion, more speed coming out of our end, which is always a good thing."

The Blackhawks' dump-in rate, as Colliton noted, has been much higher this season and it’s noteworthy because they generated a lot of their offense off the rush last season from mid-December and on. But what we didn’t know was the exact reason why the Blackhawks altered the way they entered the offensive zone.

Aside from the obvious answer of cutting down on neutral zone turnovers and limiting the amount of odd-man rushes against, Colliton notes the Blackhawks were forced to dump it in more because they weren’t entering the zone with numbers. The defensive scheme didn’t really allow them to.

But with the recent fundamental change, the Blackhawks have more options to exit their own zone cleanly, pick up speed through the neutral zone and do what they do best: by carrying the puck in and having more freedom to create offense. It’s something the coaching staff and players discussed with each other, and the consensus is it will maximize the talent of this group.

"We kind of felt it was time," Colliton said. "I mean, we're always talking with them for sure and guys, they want to score more. They want to produce, guys want to make plays. And so we're just trying to find the balance. We want to continue to work on being good defensively, but we've got to score more than them. I think we can still hold onto those defensive gains we've made and score more goals."

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